The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo



It was inevitable that if the young filmmakers associated with mumblecore couldn’t capitalize on the phenomenon at the box office someone else would. Films like The Puffy Chair (2006), Baghead (2008), and Humpday (2009) were all expected to become commercial successes, but all of them fizzled badly. Noah Baumbach, who somewhat surprisingly produced Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last (2009), shot his latest film Greenberg (2010) with mumblecore mainstays Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig.

Just as John Schlesinger turned themes that Andy Warhol was exploring in My Hustler into the Academy-Award winner Midnight Cowboy (1969) with Jon Voight playing a male prostitute, so too has Focus Features’ Greenberg mined territory similar to mumblecore, while far exceeding the success of probably all of those films combined. Greenberg, in a limited theatrical release, has already grossed $3 million domestically. Of course, I’m being deliberately provocative in my analogy. Noah Baumbach is hardly John Schlesinger, and none of the mumblecore directors are in the same league as Andy Warhol. But the surprise here is less that Baumbach’s Greenberg is a modest commercial and critical hit than the fact that he has managed to turn Greta Gerwig into an overnight star.

A. O. Scott’s glowing article on Gerwig in the Sunday New York Times two weeks ago might have seemed over the top to many people. He writes: “Ms. Gerwig, most likely without intending to be anything of the kind, may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation, a judgment I offer with all sincerity and a measure of ambivalence. She seems to be embarked on a project, however piecemeal and modestly scaled, of redefining just what it is we talk about when we talk about acting.” Because acting is the one aspect of a film about which people most disagree, I’m pretty sure that The New York Times received a great deal of flack over this claim about Greta Gerwig.

There are several different types of film acting. “Star” acting aside, Hollywood acting, as embodied by someone like Meryl Streep, is the kind in which the artifice is completely evident in her performance. Every emotion is being telegraphed to us as viewers. In other words, when watching such performances, I’m always aware of exactly what the performer is doing – there’s never really a suspension of disbelief. Indeed, the performance in question is judged precisely on recognizing the divide between actor and role. Did you really believe for a second that Jon Voight was a male hustler? Probably not, but mainstream viewers appreciated his characterization rather than its sense of realism.

Think of Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson in the scene where the Fowlers rip each other to shreds in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. That’s Hollywood acting, as we watch how the two veteran actors build their performances step by step. I’m not saying that what they are doing isn’t powerful or emotionally affecting – with artifice it is always a question of degree. In Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, there’s the scene where Mike (River Phoenix) tells Scott (Keanu Reeves) that he loves him as they sit by a campfire. The scene is painful and embarrassing to watch as a result of Mike’s vulnerability. River Phoenix doesn’t look at Reeves, wraps his arms around himself, assumes a fetal position, and rocks back and forth as he exposes his true feelings toward his friend. What I’ve just described is the artifice that Phoenix adds to a performance that is otherwise more naturalistic and more believable than that of Spacek and Wilkinson.

The last type of acting (of course I could break it down into any number of finer gradations) is naturalism. Non-professional performers, such as Cris Lankenau and Erin Fisher in Aaron Katz’s Quiet City would be examples. Warhol’s whole notion of the “superstar” was someone who plays herself or himself, which in some way represents the ideal of naturalism. It is interesting that A. O. Scott mentions two performances that I have raved about previously: Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy and Zoe Kazan in The Exploding Girl. Those are professional actors who bring tremendous skill to their naturalistic roles in these films. Scott distinguishes the untrained performance of Gerwig by noting: “Part of her accomplishment is that most of the time she doesn’t seem to be acting at all. The transparency of her performances has less to do with exquisitely refined technique than with the apparent absence of any method.”

In assessing the earlier performances of Gerwig – and I’ve seen the films he references – in light of Greenberg, Scott later suggests that “you begin to intuit a degree of calculation and craft beneath the spontaneity and sincerity.” In other words, he acknowledges that Gerwig is “acting.” By the same token, it would be naïve to think that a Warhol superstar such as Edie Sedgwick isn’t acting or playing to the camera in such films as Kitchen, Poor Little Rich, Beauty # 2 Restaurant, Afternoon, Space, or Outer and Inner Space. Edie is very different in each, and in audio recordings Edie’s personality diverges even more from anything I’ve seen of her on screen. As Erving Goffman and others have made clear, all of us are engaged in a series of roles in negotiating and performing our lives.

Much of this is related to the issue of improvisation or structured improvisation, which has some bearing on naturalistic performances like those of Lankenau and Fisher in Quiet City or Gerwig’s previous work with Joe Swanberg in LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Nights and Weekends. Swanberg’s films don’t have actual scripts. When asked in an interview how Greenberg differs from her previous work, Gerwig mentions that the new film represents a change in scale. She adds: “And I think having such a strict script is a big difference. I mean there was no improvisation in the movie. I mean, not a single word was different from how it was written. I’m always so happy when people ask me if I improvised, because that means that we sold it. But Noah writes in such a specific rhythm. He almost writes like a playwright, in terms of the way it needs to sound and read. There’s something about it that it just has this kind of musical quality, and if you miss a word, it sounds weird; it’s like hitting a false note in a song.”

To her credit, Gerwig manages to hit every note in Baumbach’s Greenberg, a romantic comedy which features Ben Stiller as a neurotic forty-year-old misfit named Roger Greenberg who returns to Los Angeles to house sit for his rich brother, Phillip (Chris Messina). Phillip has just taken the family to Vietnam, leaving behind the family dog, Mahler, and their personal assistant, twenty-five-year-old Florence Marr (Gerwig). Florence explains to one of the kids that she and Mahler aren’t going on the trip because they’re “not family.” Although Florence runs the household, she’s not very assertive in asking to be paid promptly. She meets Roger when she stops by the house to pick up her pay check. In the meantime, Florence impulsively sleeps with a guy she’s met at some art event. She tells him, “I just got out of a long relationship.” He responds, “This isn’t a relationship.”

Roger has come back to LA from New York with a lot of heavy baggage involving his brother, former band members, Ivan (Rhys Ifans)and Eric Beller (Mark Duplass), and an old flame named Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who shares story credit with Baumbach), who now has a couple of kids. Just out of a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown, Roger, a carpenter by trade, is preoccupied with writing letters to various companies about a litany of petty complaints. When Roger first meets his tall British friend, Ivan, he reads him one of his letters rather than engaging with him on a personal level. When they attend Eric Beller’s party, Greenberg literally sweats the whole time.

Roger and Florence become involved with each other almost immediately, even though Florence tries to slow things down after the fact. In the middle of it, she asks him, “Do you hear a train?” Florence, for all her competence, is full of self-doubts. She apologizes for her ugly bra and tells him, “I get kind of nerdy.” And, as if speaking for her generation, she also confesses, “I don’t read enough.” Roger, for his part, is pretty much impossible. He’s extremely neurotic, but in a mean-spirited (though funny) way. He goes down on Florence in a matter of seconds, but when he suspects she might have a cold sore on her lip, he runs off to the bathroom to investigate and decides to make a quick exit. When she gives him a flier announcing that she’s singing at a small club, he announces, “We probably shouldn’t do this again.”

After Mahler becomes ill with an autoimmune disease, Roger and Florence reconnect – Roger no longer drives – and he does show up to watch her sing. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Florence’s friend Gina (Merritt Wever) says knowingly, but Roger refuses her invitation to join Florence’s friends. When he gets together with Eric Beller, there’s still residual anger on Beller’s part over the fact that Roger torpedoed their band’s record contract years ago. As a result, Ivan developed a substance-abuse problem and now fixes computers, and poor Beller has been reduced to directing television. The friends are full of regrets involving the past. Ivan tells Roger at one point, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Roger answers, “I’d go further. Life is wasted on people.”

Roger spends much of the film venting about his life. At his birthday celebration at the restaurant, the waiters arrive with cake and candles and sing “Happy Birthday,” Roger startles everyone by shouting, “Sit on my dick, asshole.” The more reprehensible Greenberg behaves, the more Florence becomes enamored. She tells Roger she’s impressed by him, especially because he doesn’t seem pressured to be successful. She even says, “You can stay over. Wink. Wink.”  But when Florence tells him a silly story about her and a friend impersonating sluts with frat boys who videotaped them, Roger explodes and yells, “That’s the stupidest story I ever heard!” As he bolts out the door, he adds angrily, “What’s the point of that story?”

Roger, however, is still hung upon his old girlfriend Beth. He even calls her from his birthday celebration after inviting Florence to join him and Ivan. Roger tells her, “My dog is sick.” She responds, “My mom is sick.” But it’s a stalemate – he can’t imagine what that might actually mean for her. Roger manages to remember all sorts of small details about their earlier relationship, while it turns out that Beth has forgotten virtually everything. Their relationship obviously meant more to him than her – he’s been stewing over it all these years and wants to rekindle it. When Roger suggests that they should make a dinner date, Beth wisely refuses.

As Roger and Florence keep seeing each other, she comments on the fact that he likes old things. She then asks, “Do you think you could love me?” It is said in such a touching and heartfelt way that most men would melt on the spot, but Roger’s response is to ask her to stop calling him and to express a preference for someone older “who has low expectations about life.” He also psychoanalyzes her, managing to connect her behavior to being sexually molested. Florence at one point tells him, “You like me much more than you think you do.” Of course Roger does, but Greenberg is very much about a clash of generations. At a party later on, while Florence is temporarily out of the picture, Roger gets high and engages the college kids regarding their supposed differences. Roger calls them insensitive, and insists, “I’m freaked out by you kids.”

Baumbach’s risk in Greenberg is that not everyone will be amused by someone so angry. Coming to terms with adulthood and a life you never planned might not be easy, but everyone else his age but Roger has made the transition. On the other hand, Florence remains remarkably cheerful and upbeat despite her low-status job, a singing career that’s nowhere, her crush on a lunatic, and experiencing a traumatic event that she endures without complaint. Baumbach’s spin in Greenberg is putting these two different generational world views in conflict, which is also reflected in the acting styles. Ben Stiller is doing traditional comedy, while Gerwig excels at humorous naturalism. My guess is that most audience members will side with Florence, who’s quite likeable, rather than a self-absorbed character with an early mid-life crisis.

Critics have been proclaiming the death of mumblecore almost from the moment the term was coined by Andrew Bujalski’s sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, in 2005. A. O Scott writes: “It will be interesting to see how far Ms. Gerwig can go and also whether the aesthetic she represents will continue to blossom and cross-pollinate with other, older strains in American cinema.” He sees Baumbach’s Greenberg as suggesting “an intriguing transgenerational entente.” A more cynical view might call this a form of cooptation.


Since posting the above entry on Greenberg, I re-watched Hannah Takes the Stairs in order to take another look at Greta Gerwig’s performance. Joe Swanberg’s film is about a young woman, Hannah (Gerwig), who gets involved in multiple relationships over the course of a summer in Chicago. Why? We aren’t sure, nor is Hannah, other than the fact that she’s young and confused – a bit like Florence. Hannah dumps her current boyfriend Mike (Mark Duplass), who has quit his job, when she’s realizes she’s unhappy in the relationship. The reasons given are that she resents the fact that Mike is funnier than her and that he doesn’t even know the names of her sisters. Hannah drifts into another fling with her office mate Paul (Andrew Bujalski). He’s supposed to be a hot new writer, but, as in his own Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski plays a nerdy intellectual. Hannah soon tires of Paul as well, presumably because he’s not really there for her.

Hannah finally winds up with another co-worker Matt (Kent Osborne). When he confesses to her that he’s on anti-depressants, Hannah has a meltdown. Although much of the film feels as scattered as the characters, this scene with Hannah is the one where her acting talent is most obvious. Hannah tells Matt, “I tend to leave destruction in my wake.” When Matt asks her how things are going with Paul, she stares out the window rather than at him and suddenly begins to cry. The camera stays very close to her. Hannah talks about using him. Matt tells her he doesn’t even know what she’s sad about. Hannah responds, “I don’t know. I just feel like I’m seeking too many people out.” She talks about the manic nature of having crushes on people and her regrets after acting on those impulses. Four and a half minutes later, Matt unlaces her black sneakers and the two begin kissing. Hannah realizes that she’s using her looks and sexiness to cause other people pain, but she nevertheless feels helpless to do anything about it.

I went back to Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the film in The New York Times from August 22, 2007. In the context of the mumblecore/ DIY film festival at the IFC Center at the time, he writes:

“For devotees of recent D.I.Y. moviemaking, “Hannah” will evoke melancholy feelings, and not just because the heroine finds (probably temporary) bliss without seriously examining her preconceptions. Mr. Bujalski is writing a movie for Paramount; Mr. Duplass and his brother and filmmaking partner, Jay Duplass, are writing and directing features for Universal and Fox Searchlight and have sold a television series to NBC; Mr. Swanberg and Ms. Gerwig are already finishing a new movie, and are so talented that they may not have to scrounge for financing for the next one. In light of all this, “Hannah” plays like an incidental swan song, a signpost marking the point when mumblecore became a nostalgic label rather than a present-tense cultural force, and its most acclaimed practitioners moved on to bigger things. Mr. Swanberg’s third movie is a graduation photo in motion: D.I.Y., class of ’07.”

For the record, Swanberg and Gerwig’s Nights and Weekends (2008) – the film to which Seitz is alluding – grossed a total of $5,000 at the box office worldwide (Hannah Takes the Stairs did $25,000). Andrew Bujalski subsequently made Beeswax (2009), a film which I consider one of the best indie films of last year. Despite generally favorable reviews, it made considerably less money than either of his previous two self-released films.

Mark and Jay Duplass’s Baghead, which was distributed by Sony Classics, grossed $140,000, but Mark Duplass also appeared as the lead actor in Lynn Shelton’s more commercially successful Humpday ($428,000) and now, of course, he has a smaller role in Greenberg. But the Duplass brothers’ latest film Cyrus (2010), which played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, features name actors and is backed by the marketing muscle of Fox Searchlight. It appears to be their real bid to break into the mainstream. I’m basing this on watching the trailer and the Variety review. We’ll know for sure when Cyrus opens theatrically this July.

Posted 10 April, 2010

The Exploding Girl

Bradley Rust Gray pushes cinematic naturalism to the brink in his intriguing second feature The Exploding Girl, where very little happens and the real interest lies almost entirely beneath the surface. Gray is mining territory that has been explored previously by films such as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2005) and Aaron’s Katz’s Quiet City (2007), but also So Yong Kim’s In Between Days (2006), a film that Gray co-wrote with his wife and creative partner, Kim, who also co-produced and co-edited The Exploding Girl.

Mumblecore films, to which Rust’s new film invites comparison, tend to be highly verbal films about relationships, whereas The Exploding Girl employs words sparingly. It uses temporality – the passage of time – rather than language to suggest the awkwardness of youthful interactions, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. Mumblecore films, for the most part, deal with characters who consider themselves hipsters. The Exploding Girl, on the other hand, focuses on a pair of nerdy college kids. Mumblecore films are populated by nonprofessional performers, mostly friends of the filmmaker, whereas Gray uses professional actors here.

Indeed, the performances of Zoe Kazan and Mark Rendall are key elements to the success of Gray’s film. Kazan, in particular, is as amazing in The Exploding Girl as Michelle Williams is in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. In fact, it’s hard to take your eyes off her, as she finds inventive ways to fill dead time. The writer Jon Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay for Wendy and Lucy, talks about Michelle Williams being able to express the inexpressible. He told an interviewer: “To me, the incredible thing she accomplished, and which I can only imagine is like the black belt of acting, was somehow to express the idea that she was, in fact, withholding expression. Somehow, she managed to give the impression of blocked feelings, which to me seems almost impossible. How do you express that you are not expressing something? It seems really hard.” Zoe Kazan also earns a black belt in acting for her portrayal of a character with bottled-up feelings in The Exploding Girl. In fact, she won the best actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring.

The plot of The Exploding Girl is extremely slight. The story centers on a young student named Ivy (Kazan), who returns home to Brooklyn from college in upstate New York over break, along with an old school chum named Al (Rendall) who ends up staying at her house. In the car, Al, who attends a different college, asks Ivy whether her boyfriend Greg (Franklin Pipp) is planning to visit her. Greg isn’t, but Al’s reaction suggests that it’s actually a loaded question. It soon becomes obvious from Ivy and Greg’s cell phone conversations, that their relationship consists mostly of reporting what they’re doing at the moment, and, for Ivy at least, it seems to involve moping around and waiting for him to call her. So it comes as no surprise when Greg dumps Ivy as she stands on the street in the midst of heavy traffic.

Ivy has epilepsy, which partially accounts for her fragility. She has to be careful not to drink too much or get stoned or overly stressed, but she’s also so repressed and depressed that her passivity becomes pretty exasperating. Not that her handsome and overly polite pal Al, who’s into biology and has the face of a sad clown, is any better at expressing what he feels either. Under the guise of their close bond – they go back to eighth or ninth grade – he confides in her about his crushes, and asks her advice about wanting to kiss another woman. Yet it’s obvious in the hushed and sincere tone he uses when speaking to her that the two have feelings for each other beyond friendship, even though they might need a sinking ocean liner for it to register.

Ivy’s mother (Maryann Urbano) runs a dance studio. Other than when the three of them play a game of cards, she seems more preoccupied with her own life than with spending time with her daughter. Al’s parents aren’t much better. They’ve rented out his room (or at least that’s what he claims), and his parents never come up again. Gray uses the art-cinema technique of burying the motivation of his characters. Babies, real or imagined, surface several times in the film. Along with Ivy’s mom, Ivy and Al visit her cousin, who has a new baby, which Ivy holds, while Al stares with wonder and touches the baby’s tiny hand. Later, after a party where Al gets very stoned and the two share a milkshake, he asks Ivy whether she wants to have babies. She explains that, given her medical condition and need to take medication, it would be more complicated for her, which leads to this exchange:

IVY: Why? You want babies?
AL: Yeah.
IVY: You want my baby?
AL: Yes. (Ivy laughs) I didn’t mean it like that.

At the rooftop pigeon coop toward the film’s end, he shows her a couple of baby birds. Ivy gushes and wants to touch them. Is this an indirect way of trying to bring up sex?

In terms of the film’s use of buried motivation, there seems to be one skeleton in the closet that’s never brought up, namely: What happened to Ivy’s father? If The Exploding Girl is the b-side of In Between Days (both titles come from songs by The Cure), as Gray has indicated in several interviews, I would hazard a guess that this might be the key to unlocking Ivy’s character. In Kim’s film, In Between Days, the absence of Aimie’s father remains the main source of her pain and confusion. Why is Ivy so depressed? Why is she in a relationship with a guy like Greg, who is clearly cheating on her behind her back? The answer actually isn’t in the text, so to speak, but part of the pleasure of watching films like In Between Days, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and The Exploding Girl remains filling in the missing blanks.

The Exploding Girl is deliberately underwritten – the screenplay is a mere 60 pages for a film that’s 79 minutes long. Gray calls the process of making the film “exciting because we made it out of nothing, like making cookies with ingredients you find in your cupboard.” According to an interview with Ramin Bahrani in Filmmaker, Gray wrote the character of Ivy based on conversations with Zoe Kazan after she agreed to be in his film, while Al’s character derived from things Grey had learned about Rendall from an actress friend of his. Thus, there’s a close connection between actor and role in the film. As was already evident in In Between Days, Gray has mastered how young people communicate (or don’t) with each other, especially via cell phones. As Ivy walks down the street, Greg calls her:

IVY: Hello?
GREG: Hey . . .
IVY: Hi. Hey.
GREG: Hey.
IVY: Um, I called you last night.
GREG: Yeah, I was with my parents, and . . . we’re going to lunch now.
IVY: Oh . . . (her phone rings) Oh, hang on a second. Shit, I have another call. Um, can I, can I . . . can you hang on?
She gets another call, which turns out to be from Al.
GREG: Ah, yeah.
She talks briefly with Al, and then returns to Greg.
IVY: Hey . . . Greg?
GREG: Hey, yeah, sorry I can’t talk long now. I’m with my parents. I just . . .
IVY: Oh . . .
GREG: You know, wanted to check in.
IVY: Okay.
GREG: I miss you.
IVY: Yeah, me too.
GREG: Ah, okay, so I’ll call you later. Okay?
IVY: Yeah, yeah, okay. I’ll have my phone on. (Pause) Okay, bye.
GREG: Bye.

In other words, the whole purpose of Greg’s phone call is to tell Ivy that he can’t talk to her.

Rust differs from mumblecore directors in being far less oriented toward dialogue and in relying instead on visual storytelling. Gray cites Hou Hsaio-hsien as a major influence on this piece. The Exploding Girl embodies a cinema of observed gestures, silence, and intricate sound design rather than plot and action. Gray uses a longer focal-length lens to compress his images spatially. It allows him to embed his characters within documentary-like shots taken on the street, which add to the film’s realism. Even though Gray includes a fair number of closeup shots, especially of Ivy, he and his cinematographer, Eric Lin, often place obstacles between the characters, such as framing Ivy behind the doctor’s shoulder during her checkup or filming her through passing traffic while she’s in the bookstore.

The most visually exhilarating scene occurs on a rooftop when Al takes Ivy to see his friend’s pigeon coop, where she finally breaks down, while pigeons swirl in formation overhead. The film is also book-ended by the trip from upstate to Brooklyn, where the moving landscape is reflected on Ivy’s sleeping face, and the return ride back, where Gray relies on the power of the camera to capture those subtle moments that are somehow beyond words.

The Exploding Girl, which is being distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, will be shown as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival in April.

Posted 19 February, 2010

Medicine for Melancholy


A couple of weeks ago Lynn Hirschberg had an article on mumblecore in the style magazine of the Sunday New York Times. It featured a lead photograph of so-called mumblecore personalities, only it didn’t feature Andrew Bujalski, Greta Gerwig, or Joe Swanberg, but several other folks, who, with the exception of Jay Duplass (director of The Puffy Chair and co-director of Baghead), didn’t quite seem to belong there, including Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed Medicine for Melancholy (2008). Gerwig and Bujalski apparently declined to participate in the photo op – which featured everyone decked out in designer clothes and eating a gourmet lunch with a caption that read “not-so starving artists” – while Swanberg apparently nixed being photographed with the more “commercial” Humpday crowd. Jenkins, whose film played at the SXSW Film Festival, has suggested a connection to mumblecore in interviews, but I don’t really think his extremely impressive first feature fits the label.

Medicine for Melancholy tells the story of the aftermath of a one-night stand, in which the two African-American characters spend the next twenty-four hours together. Independent films such as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Aaron Katz’s Quiet City have dealt with two strangers spending the equivalent of a day together. But those films were really all about flirtation and the anticipation of romance – two people falling in love – whereas in Jenkins’s film, the two characters are attempting to get to know one another after sexual intimacy has already occurred. Anyone who has ever found herself or himself in such a predicament might be able to relate to the anti-romantic difficulties of struggling to discover some semblance of mutual compatibility. Medicine for Melancholy does convey the awkwardness of communication and personal relationships found in mumblecore films, but the issues here are compounded by race and class, which add another layer of complexity and substance to Jenkins’s film.

What’s interesting about Medicine for Melancholy is how rarely – other than in the films of Spike Lee or Charles Burnett – we have been able to see a film about the lives of ordinary African Americans represented on the screen. The film begins with Micah (Wyatt Cenac of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), both in their late twenties, leaving a previous night’s party early the next morning. Rather than being the overly talkative characters who populate mumblecore films, Micah and Jo, for the most part, keep their emotions buried under a cool (if somewhat sullen) veneer. In the film’s first scene, in which they each brush their teeth with their fingers in the bathroom, they don’t say anything to each other. The breakfast at a nearby café contains an undercurrent of tension, especially when Micah confesses, “This is a little embarrassing, but . . . I kind of forgot your name.” Jo looks away and responds, “I don’t know if we really got there.” She promptly lies and tells him her name is “Angela.” The two share a cab ride, but Jo splits once they get near her place. When she inadvertently leaves her wallet on the floor of the taxi, Micah discovers Jo’s real name and, after some effort, manages to track her down.

It turns out that Jo lives with a wealthy art curator, who’s currently in London. Micah asks, “Is he white?” She answers, “Does it matter?” Micah responds, “Yes and no.” The boyfriend does turn out to be white. Now irritated, Jo asks Micah to leave, but he sweet-talks her into allowing him to accompany her on an errand. Afterwards, Jo suggests going to the art museum, but Micah refuses.

JO: What’s wrong with MoMA?
MICAH: No comment.
JO: Okay, black man, so what do two black folks do on a Sunday afternoon?
MICAH: Go to church, eat fried chicken. What do two black folks not do on a Sunday afternoon?
JO: What?
MICAH: Go to a museum.
JO: That is not funny.
MICAH: It is funny.
JO: It’s not funny.
MICAH: It’s funny because it’s not funny.

Micah’s remark not only reveals the class differences that divide them, but also that their world views are completely different (which extends to issues of personal hygiene). They end up at MoAD (Museum of African Diaspora) rather than MoMA. Micah announces, “MoAD, mamma, not MoMA!”

Michah later drunkenly complains, “Think about it. Everything about being indie is all tied to not being black.” For Micah, the fact that they are two young black people in a white urban area suggests they share a special bond. But, to Jo, that’s patently ridiculous – she refuses to let herself be categorized by a single word. Micah insists, “Me? I’m a black man. That’s how I see the world. That’s how the world sees me. But if I have to choose one, I’m black before I’m a man. So, therefore, I am black.” In other words, he contends that race is a central part of his identity, whereas for Jo, it’s not – she believes people should be judged for themselves rather than by the color of their skin. In the age of Obama, the question Jenkins raises – whether race still matters – is certainly a timely one.

Despite a certain physical attraction, the more these two people get to know each other, the wider the chasm between them seems to grow, even though, as Micah points out, they are part of a very small minority of African Americans living in San Francisco – a number that’s declining as a result of inflated real-estate prices. In point of fact, we never really get to meet any other characters in the film as Micah and Jo move through San Francisco before they eventually go dancing at a white club. By limiting his story to only two central characters, Jenkins cleverly shows their isolation from the city as well those who reside within it. At one point, they stumble upon a community housing meeting about the perils of gentrification, which underscores Micah’s strong political sense and provides a striking contrast to Jo’s apolitical side.

Micah’s apartment in the Tenderloin district is cramped in comparison to the one in which Jo lives with her boyfriend. Both Micah and Jo use the opportunity to snoop around while the other person is taking a shower. Jo opens Micah’s laptop and learns from his Facebook page that he has just had his heart broken in a previous relationship. In an ironic twist, the picture indicates it was by a white woman, which suddenly gives a different spin to his character. When Micah returns, she finally asks him what he does for a living – he installs aquariums. Jo makes tee shirts of women film directors. This explains why the one she’s wearing says “Loden” – an obscure reference to Barbara Loden, the writer and director of Wanda (1970). Micah asks, “You make money off that?” Jo answers, “It isn’t about that.” When Micah offers Jo some red wine, she’s shocked that he keeps it in the refrigerator. Her reaction says it all.

I mentioned that Medicine for Melancholy doesn’t really seem to be part of mumblecore. One reason is that the film seems carefully scripted rather than improvised. It’s also more stylized, and uses professional actors from Los Angeles rather than nonprofessional friends. Jenkins, who went to film school at Florida State, has a great visual sense. He and cinematographer James Laxton drain most of the color from the film, so that it appears to be black and white with occasional accents of muted color, such as the Micah and Jo’s red shirts in the first scene. The film contains many memorable shots such as the one near the film’s beginning where Micah and Jo walk up a hill and disappear down the other the side, so that when they desert the frame we’re left with a spectacular shot of the San Francisco skyline. There are many tracking shots of the city from the cab or as Micah and Jo ride their bikes. When Micah talks about his affection for San Francisco, the images of the city are suddenly rendered in vivid colors. And the film’s final shot, involving an exhilarating camera movement, is pure poetry.

Medicine for Melancholy is at heart a regional film. Jenkins’s portrayal of San Francisco, in many ways, helps to define the ambivalence and mood of these two characters, which Cenac and Heggins manage to capture so well through their understated performances. Although Jenkins employs naturalism, it’s the type that seems aesthetically closer to that of Kelly Reichardt, So Yong Kim, and Ramin Bahrani than to filmmakers associated with mumblecore. Jenkins’s film has done remarkably well for a low-budget indie film that was shot on digital video for less than $14,000. Not only did the film play on the festival circuit, including Toronto, but it was picked up for distribution by IFC. Somewhat surprisingly, it managed to gross over a $100,000 at the box office, and has already been released on DVD. In case you don’t know, for an independent film, that’s considered to be “success” these days. Even so, Medicine for Melancholy is still not on most viewers’ radar, which is a pity because it’s one of the standout indie films of the past year.

Posted 30 December, 2009

Dance Party, USA

I’ve already written about Aaron Katz’s terrific second feature, Quiet City (2007) previously, but I finally had a chance to catch up with his debut effort, Dance Party, USA (2006). Both films have been released recently on DVD in a two-disc set from indie distributor, Benten Films, confirming my belief that the most intriguing films out there aren’t necessarily playing at the local multiplex.

The two films – Quiet City and Dance Party, USA – are remarkably different in tone. Although Quiet City is a potentially uplifting love story, Dance Party, USA is an incredibly dark and disturbing portrait of teenage relationships. Dance Party, USA begins with the aftermath of a beer bash, as Jessica walks through a house the next morning, which is followed by large credits set against patriotic red, white, and blue backgrounds. Following moving car shots of Portland, two teenagers converse while riding on light rail transit. Gus (Cole Pennsinger) tells his friend Bill (Ryan White) a crude misogynous story about one of his sexual escapades, but also reveals that the girl, named Kate, is only fourteen. This freaks out Bill, who dismisses the story as bullshit. The conversation switches to the upcoming Fourth of July party. When Bill asks Gus about his ex-girlfriend Christie and it becomes apparent that he’s interested in her, Gus encourages Bill to have sex with her.

Meanwhile, as they walk in an industrial section of town, Christie (Sarah Bing) discusses Gus with her friend Jessica (Anna Cavan), who hasn’t had much luck lately on the romantic front. Christie confides her ambivalent and conflicted feelings about the relationship with Gus. As rap music plays, the camera moves through the party, before settling on a phallic beer bottle resting on Gus’s crotch, as he converses with Bill, who’s waiting for Christie to show up. It takes a matter of minutes for Gus to get a bored female party-goer into bed. Her post-coital dissatisfaction is obvious not only from her body language, but from the brick pillar that divides the frame in two, as she lies in bed, while Gus gets dressed.

A guy hits on Jessica at the party with a promise of killer weed, but she’s not interested, especially once she figures out that he’s the older brother of someone she knew in fourth grade. Katz has a great ear for naturalistic dialogue:

GUS: Where you been?
GUY: I’ve been all over. I was driving all over the place.
GUS: Cool.
GUY: You ever been in Nebraska?
GUS: No.
GUY: Well, you know how like when you think of Nebraska, you can’t really think of anything that’s there?
GUS: Yeah.
GUY: Well, there’s actually a lot of stuff there.
GUS: That’s pretty cool. So what are you doing here?
GUY: I don’t know. I guess . . . I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I ran out of money, and I’m back. I had this job in Texas, but . . . fuck . . . I didn’t want to stay there.

What’s also interesting in this scene is Gus’s sustained reaction to this drunken guy. He’s become so inured to such conversations that the fissures in his concentration are only revealed in the darting movements of his eyes.

A huge fireworks display is depicted without the accompanying explosions, creating a disjunction between sound and image. There’s another shot later on of Jessica playing a record with head phones on, which creates a similar effect. It’s the equivalent of the gaps that exist in the conversations between these young kids – almost as if most of the meaning of what’s transpiring is occurring entirely in the silent spaces between their words rather than in the words themselves. In a sense, even more so than Quiet City, Dance Party, USA is nearly all subtext, as if these kids’ whole world – adolescence itself – is somehow rendered as a completely impenetrable experience, even to those who are experiencing it.

Gus meets Jessica outside the party, as she sits there bored and brooding while waiting for Christie, who has taken up with Bill. Following the stiff formal introduction of these two “friends of a friend” – who know each other only indirectly, but nevertheless intimately – Gus tries to explain his bad reputation. Jessica, however, beats him to the punch by prematurely divulging that she’s not going to sleep with him and declaring that she thinks he’s an asshole. Gus tries to start over again, and in doing so, ends up making a shocking personal revelation regarding the fourteen-year-old girl.

It’s the same story he’s told Bill earlier, but this time Gus actually confesses the truth about what really happened that night – it’s not a pretty picture. “I do bad things a lot of times,” he tells her, “but I’m not a bad person.” Throughout his long and painful monologue, Jessica, bathed in warm golden back light, doesn’t really say anything. Afterwards she ignites a couple of sparklers, which we watch in close-up until they fizzle out. Finally, she asks, “Do you want to go somewhere?” The two drive through downtown Portland at night. The shots of city – the lights emit a reddish cast as if we’ve suddenly entered the underworld, followed by more fluorescent blues – manage to provide the intrusions of reality into this otherwise encapsulated teenage world. The sequence culminates in a scene where Jessica simply asks Gus whether he’s cold, before she silently drops him off at his house.

Gus manages to track down the victim of his story, Kate. Gus has earlier told Jessica how the passage of time had nearly wiped the incident out of his memory, but he’s clearly trying to gauge what impact it has had on the younger teen. When Gus turns up at her door, Kate doesn’t appear to recognize him. She asks, “Have we met before?” He responds, “Kind of. I mean, we met at a party. Like a year ago.” A bit unsure what to do, she invites him inside to watch TV and drink coke. Gus queries her about having a boyfriend as well as the length of the relationship. He asks casually, “What happened with that?” Kate, however, is not very forthcoming. After a long pause, Gus asks, “So has anything like really bad ever happened to you?” She answers, “Like what?” Kate merely shrugs and asks him the same question, suggesting that she has already repressed the whole incident (at what future psychological cost?), and, consequently, Gus doesn’t bring it up.

As Gus and Bill sit on the couch drinking beers, Bill invites Gus to join him and Christie at the amusement park later on. He also refers to Jessica as a bitch. Gus complains about women always wanting him to stimulate them physically, when, as he puts it, “I’m like, suck my dick. I just want you to suck my dick.” He also finds the word “slut” to be a turn on, and refers to photography and painting and studying insects as “fag shit.” Gus, however, suddenly asks, Why not?” He then confesses that he really likes Jessica, not for her body, but for herself. Bill, however, offers Gus advice, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to feel bad about anything.” He continues, “Don’t do it to yourself.” Gus responds, “Thanks.” As hardcore music continues to play in the background, Gus asks Bill for a hug, but it clearly makes Bill feel uncomfortable.

Gus and Jessica later meet up at the amusement park, and decide to get their picture taken together in a photo booth. After they make goofy faces and run out of money, the two turn and kiss twice before they leave the booth, and the film abruptly ends.

Dance Party, USA captures the emotional turbulence of what it feels like to be a teenager. In particular, it’s about the pressures of being male with its exaggerated emphasis on getting drunk, sexual conquest, and subservience to peer-group pressures. Although Dance Party, USA, in contrast to Quiet City, stays much closer to the written script, Katz has a knack for obtaining incredibly naturalistic performances that actually have real depth. He also has an economical way of staging scenes by employing long takes and minimal cutting that caters to the performers. Aaron Katz is clearly at the forefront of filmmakers associated with mumblecore.

I’m not convinced that Dance Party, USA deserves to be seen as “a kind of correction to Larry Clark’s KIDS,” as Karina Longworth has written, or that the film is “a story of bad behavior leading to redemption.” If so, I don’t understand the scene toward the end between Gus and Bill, or even the previous one with Kate. I think Gus definitely has been affected by his interaction with Jessica. At least he can admit his feelings for her beyond lust for her physical body, but confession alone is rarely enough to change a person’s behavior. To his credit, Katz is careful to leave this as an open-ended question, which is part of the authenticity and honesty of the film. Dance Party, USA remains a sobering portrait of a rather confused male teenager, who — at least until now — has used his good looks as a weapon against young women.

Posted 17 February, 2008

Quiet City

Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland represent a vivid study in contrasts. Frownland, with its cramped apartments and cast of social misfits, presents a hellish vision of urban life in Brooklyn. Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, on the other hand, somehow manages to turn Brooklyn into a semi-pastoral landscape by interspersing shots of nature – from changing autumn leaves and tree branches against blue sky and puffy clouds to spectacular sunsets. Even the subway ride and traffic lights of the city at night are rendered as colorful abstractions. While the film will remind viewers of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, along with work by Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, and David Gordon Green, Katz successfully navigates the terrain of cinematic influences and references by creating a film that embodies a sensibility very much his own.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Before Sunrise, largely because Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy still seem too much like professional actors despite Linklater’s use of naturalism. As characters, they try so hard to impress each other that it invariably results in missed connections. Jamie (Erin Fisher) and Charlie (Cris Lankenau), the two young protagonists of Quiet City, on the contrary, don’t really try at all. They’re not obsessed with getting into each other’s pants for one thing, but seem more interested in just hanging out and getting to know one another.

The story is remarkably simple. Jamie arrives in Brooklyn to meet a friend, Samantha, who, due to cell-phone problems, ends up leaving her stranded. Jamie runs into Charlie in the subway station, asks for directions to a diner, and the two end up spending the next twenty-four hours together. Although scripted, there’s not really much of a plot in the conventional sense. Instead we experience a series of episodic narrative incidents. The two break into Samantha’s apartment, have a foot race in the park, and visit a friend, Adam (Joe Swanberg), to retrieve Charlie’s hat, but actually forget to take it. They later go to an art opening and a party afterwards.

Neither Jamie nor Charlie appear to have much drive or ambition. We learn at the art opening that Jamie works at an Applebee’s restaurant in Atlanta, while Charlie has quit his job and wishes he could find a way to get paid for doing absolutely nothing. Jamie is extremely attractive. She has a certain directness in manner, but often disguises it by raising the inflection of her voice at the end of a sentence, so that what begins as an assertion somehow gets converted into a question. Jamie also has the nervous habit of playing with her hair. Charlie, on the other hand, speaks much less, and manages to be vague about just about everything – the taste of wine or if he’s fast runner – but he exudes a certain puppy-like charm. At the diner, it comes out that Charlie’s ex-girlfriend used to like to go there. In response to Jamie’s questions, Charlie indicates that she’s now in Alaska, but later mentions that she previously lived in Florida. Charlie offers to let Jamie stay at his place, adding that “my couch is open.” Jamie’s first response is to laugh at the blatant implications, but she accepts his gracious offer. Nevertheless, Jamie is pretty flirtatious, even if Charlie appears not to notice.

When they get to his apartment, Jamie offers to give the shaggy-haired Charlie a haircut. Afterwards, he complains about feeling itchy and takes a shower. We fully expect Jamie to join him, but after he finishes, Charlie finds her fast asleep on his bed. He might lie down next to her, but instead ends up sleeping on the couch. The reasons for Jamie’s reticence become evident the next morning when she gets a phone call, presumably from her boyfriend in Atlanta. Jamie tells him what’s happened and openly admits that she’s just slept at some guy’s apartment. He hangs up. Jamie calls right back, and makes it clear that “I’m not doing anything wrong,” though it’s apparent from the tone of their brief conversation that they have issues.

While sitting together on the floor of Samantha’s apartment, Charlie confesses to being cowardly. He tells her that he has a tendency to withdraw from relationships rather than break them off – he doesn’t want to take responsibility for the other person’s feelings. Jamie admits that she’s mostly dated people liked him, but that in her latest relationship she’s turning into him. As they continue to discuss relationships, Charlie says something about hoping to grow up, so as not to freak out and feel trapped, “and just kind of actually go with it.” The camera pans from a side view of Jamie to a reaction shot of Charlie, as she responds, “Well this is my first time feeling like that.” He nods his head in agreement. The camera cuts back to Jamie, who stares directly at him.

After Jamie beats Charlie in a foot race at the park, Jamie invites Charlie to her high school friend’s art opening later that evening. While in the neighborhood, Charlie suggests stopping at Adam’s place to get his hat. There’s a very funny scene where Adam at first refuses to buzz them in. Once upstairs, Adam complains that he hasn’t heard from Charlie in awhile. It turns out that Adam has gotten engaged after being together with a woman for seven years. The fact that Adam’s getting married suggests a level of adult maturity that Jamie and Charlie speculated about earlier. The two return to Charlie’s apartment, where Jamie takes a shower – a second opportunity for something to happen. After she finishes, Charlie is now the one who’s fallen asleep.

At the art opening, Charlie runs into a hyperactive friend named Kyle (Tucker Stone), who also suggests that he hasn’t seen Charlie for several weeks, reinforcing what we’ve learned about him from Adam. Kyle, in fact, manages to ridicule both Jamie and Charlie. He playfully embarrasses Charlie in front of Jamie by asking whether Charlie’s still gearing up to move down to Florida to be with a girlfriend. Kyle tells Jamie, “He’s hung up on some girl back in Florida.” “No I’m not,” Charlie insists, looking at Jamie, but Kyle counters, “You talk about her all the time.” It’s clear that Charlie wants him to shut up – has he been outed, or is Kyle simply mistaken? Whatever the case, Charlie seems to react with genuine embarrassment.

Jamie’s artist friend, Robin (Sarah Hellman), invites the three of them back to her place for an after-party, where we watch the four of them dance to rock music, but we hear non-diegetic piano music instead, which creates a strange effect. As Jamie and Robin lie together in a loft bed, Robin talks candidly about her love life, complaining that she’s been having trouble relating to men sexually. She first seems to indicate that she would prefer passionate sex with someone she didn’t know all that well, but then later tells a story about asking a guy if she could just lie on top on him. Her story suggests the theme of Quiet City, namely, that people have a desperate need, not for casual sex, but for real intimacy. Following the party, we see Jamie and Charlie riding alone in an empty subway car. The camera frames them from behind, as Jamie’s head leans into the fold of Charlie’s neck and the two fall asleep. The film ends with a shot of an airplane taking off against an orange-red sky. Although it’s left ambiguous, Quiet City suggests that these shared moments of intimacy are, in all likelihood, a temporary solace.

Quiet City primarily works because of the palpable chemistry between the two main performers. At one point, Jamie and Charlie improvise a duet on a small electronic keyboard. Their reactions to what they’re playing and the music itself conveys a buoyant energy that carries through the entire film. Katz infuses Quiet City with a warm, golden glow of natural and artificial light that continually illuminates the faces of Jamie and Charlie. He mixes artfully composed wide shots that convey a distinct sense of place with a hand-held camera that often zooms in tight to follow the movement of its characters. It’s the most formal and poetic of the mumblecore films I’ve seen to date, which owes much to the outstanding cinematography of Andrew Reed. Already imbued with a certain nostalgia, Quiet City creates the uncanny sense of the past unfolding in the present, as if its two characters are already looking back through the filter of memory at what we see transpire.

Along with Chris Smith’s The Pool and three other films, Quiet City was recently nominated for the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature made for under a half-million dollars. Aaron Katz’a two films – Quiet City and Dance Party USA (which I still haven’t seen) – will be released together on DVD from Benten Films on January 29.

Posted 5 January, 2008

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